Toronto ringing its bell

Festival tying bow on new box

Amid the familiar commotion of this year’s Toronto Film Festival, there is a dawning awareness that the fest’s map is about to be redrawn.

Above King Street downtown, the $200 million film and cultural center known as Bell Lightbox is rising, a much more visible structure than it was in September 2007. Seating about 1,350 people in five theaters sheathed in gallery and dining space, the Lightbox will open in 2010, altering the way films unspool at one of the world’s key festivals.

The Lightbox stands at the corner of King and John streets, on the same plot of land where helmer Ivan Reitman’s parents opened a car wash in the 1950s. The Reitman family held onto the parcel and donated it for the project, saving a sliver of it for a 46-story, movie-themed condo tower that will be adjacent to the Lightbox. (A penthouse named for Morgan Freeman is selling for $2.2 million.)

The thousands of media and film biz insiders who descend each September will experience the annual banquet of 300-plus films inside the glass-and-concrete confines of the Lightbox. That setup, which resembles those in Berlin or Cannes, will be a big change from the sprawling array of commercial multiplexes and legit houses where critics, publicists, buyers and sellers have dispersed for years.

Development at Yonge-Dundas Square, billed as Toronto’s version of Gotham’s Times Square, will also centralize public screenings at new venues closer to downtown, such as a new AMC multiplex.

The Lightbox will pull a lot of festival activity two miles south from Yorkville, known for the tony shops and restaurants along Bloor Street, to a resurgent downtown near the Lake Ontario shore. That’s a shift not only for event planners and industry pros doing the fest shuffle but also for hotels and many other players in the $100 million-plus civic spending spree.

The center of celebrity and showbiz gravity is so clearly Yorkville now that the new Hazelton Hotel just off Bloor has instantly become a thriving hot spot. Rooms cost $800 a night and up, and an elite crowd flocks to its bar and restaurant.

Flow, around the corner, is where Fox Searchlight hosted a stylish cocktail party Sunday night even as the deal for “The Wrestler” was hammered out and auds raved about “Slumdog Millionaire.”

The renovated Hyatt, with its popular rooftop bar, is another Bloor mainstay. It hosted CAA’s bash Sunday for “The Wrestler” and Summit’s gathering the following night. Paparazzi and looky-loos form semicircles around the entrances to the Hyatt, the Intercontinental and the Four Seasons.

But for how much longer?

“We’re pretty sure the best parties during the festival will be down here starting in 2010,” said Noah Cowan, a longtime fest programmer who is now artistic director of the Bell Lightbox. “When we first decided to do this about seven or eight years ago, we had some nervousness about the hotel stock in parts of the city. But now with Ritz-Carlton coming in (with a 53-story downtown tower) and other boutique hotels and renovations to several others, we have the confidence that we will be ready.”On a hardhat tour of the Lightbox for journalists during the fest, Cowan showed off its features. There will be more than 100 “screening opportunities,” from small plasma panels to sides of the building, which can show films outward toward the street. Gallery spaces can tie in to film series, and each venue is connected to the others via a host of technologies.

It’s an ambitious agenda (typified by the slogan “transforming the way people see the world”) that intends to galvanize film activity not just during the festival but year-round.

The modernist design is by the firm behind the widely lauded Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art. But the slightly ragtag quality of King Street, a familiar strip to festgoers who stroll from red-carpet galas at Roy Thomson Hall down to after-parties, adds another wrinkle.

Outside of the second-floor Lightbox greenroom, where talent would gather after major fest screenings, for example, is a giant billboard for Alexander Keith’s Beer on the back wall of an Irish pub. It’s hard to square that snapshot with the Brad Pitt cavalcade of glitz that comes to town every year.

“Toronto is a city in permanent transition,” said Cowan when asked about downtown’s redevelopment. “In some ways, it’s like Los Angeles in the way that it doesn’t always respect its own development history.”

While the stakes are high in terms of the impact of the Lightbox on the city, regulars at the festival also figure to be jolted out of their routine.

“Going to a festival every year, you have your rituals, favorite restaurants or B&Bs, and you don’t want that to change,” said Howie Movshovitz, a critic and programmer based in Denver.

“The movement downtown will probably do some good,” said Visitor Pictures’ Jan Korbelin, exec producer of “Crash” and “The Lucky Ones.” “Although the (current) film venues are great, the market side of things is decentralized with various meeting places and hotels. Concentrating things is good news from a producers standpoint.”

A studio exec with a decade of Torontos under his belt looks forward to the communal feel of the Lightbox. “It’s so spread out now it’s sometimes hard to feel the energy that comes out of a screening, whether it’s good news or bad. Here everybody will get the news in one spot.”

(Jennie Punter contributed to this report.)

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